Defense & Security military Politics & Government US

Blueprint For Armageddon: The Race For Rare Earths

The 21st century has seen unpredictable changes to the landscape of the battlefield. But one thing never falters: control over supply chains is paramount to sustainability.

Change in the Game

General Mark Milley described the character of war as ever-changing and evolving. However, the nature of war stays the same: large-scale destruction for little cost. Milley’s statement concerned the growing development and use of unmanned aircraft and AI capable military equipment. These are reshaping the character of war at a pace far quicker than expected. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is conducting a program called Air Combat Evolution (ACE) which aims to have autonomous unmanned aircraft under the command of a human pilot for combat operations.

While Artificial Intelligence is yet to enter the battlefield, cyberspace poses a challenging obstacle in this new frontier for the military-industrial-congressional complex. According to a 2017 Department of Defense report, U.S. civilian infrastructure has crippling vulnerabilities susceptible to Russian and Chinese cyber attacks. 

These vulnerabilities do not limit themselves to civilian infrastructure. Rather, they encompass  all facets of the military’s most complex systems and demonstrate a balancing of power in this domain. Retired vice-admiral Joe Sestak argues that U.S. ship numbers will be negligible in a battle for the Western Pacifc, as Chinese development of ballistic missiles, such as the DF-21 and DF-26, an expanding 5G network that will allow for the guidance of hypersonic missiles, and a well-fortified domain in cyberspace with diverse capabilities results in the U.S. having lost control over the seas.

The Blind Spot

Unsurprisingly, U.S. officials have taken steps to increase the military budget and push towards building a five hundred ship navy, which raises concerns about an arms race with China. To make matters worse, China’s 5G network, which is expanding internationally, presents threats to civilian infrastructure through potential backdoors which could be used to enable Chinese economic or national security espionage. Moreover, the scope of 5G technology reaches the most critical facets of the military, such as enhancing communications and providing an infrastructure for further developments in military technologies. 

China’s naval modernization has quickly closed the gap with other great powers, totaling 360 battle force ships compared to America’s  297 ships. However, China’s lack of nuclear powered vessels demonstrates that there are still developments to be made. That being said, China’s development and large-scale production of advanced radar systems, satellites, short and intermediate-range ballistic missile systems, night vision technology, quantum computing, and jet fighters, demonstrates an uncanny ability to quickly procure and put into operational use incredibly powerful modern technology.

The staples of this new—and critical—military age is a frontier; however, these developments rely on complex supply chains which have proven unstable in recent years. One being rare earths, which include seventeen different elements that are integral to the development of the aforementioned systems.

China supplied 80% of the rare earth mineral imports by the United States from 2014 to 2017 and as of 2019, China’s rare earth element production was nearly five times that of the U.S. A reliable supply chain is not only necessary for today’s complex military systems, but it is also critical to products widely consumed by the public, such as computers, hard drives, monitors, and electric and hybrid vehicles. These materials provide the foundation for technological research and development, ensuring that such processes can be maintained and distributed on an international scale.

While the situation has not reached its breaking point, the cracks are beginning to form. Take President Trump’s trade war, which exposed the potential for trade relations between the two countries to crumble. President Biden does not seem as overt as his predecessor regarding policy towards China but the policy of containment seems to be more present than ever. The current administration’s continued commitment to the quadrilateral security dialogue between Australia, India, Japan, and the United States to counter China’s growing influence in the Indo-Pacific demonstrates that the quick escalation of geopolitical tensions started in Trump’s administration are continuing to rise under Biden.

The Way Forward  

Building supply chains for the mining and processing of rare earth minerals is a critical step in an age of increased competition and greater technological advancements. Starting in the 1980s, the U.S. had shifted processing facilities into China for cheaper supply chains; however, given the current tensions between the two countries, policy makers in Washington have been forced to reevaluate such arrangements. Even so, reserves are finite and vary in size which places limitations on production capacity—similar to oil deposits. For example, China’s rare earth metal reserves are 44 million metric tons, compared to 1.4 million metric tons of reserves in the U.S., enabling a higher ceiling in production capacity.

The United States has recently taken steps to bolster its role in the rare earth mineral market through investments in multiple mining and processing companies. One of these companies, Lynas Rare Earths Ltd, aims to produce approximately 25% of the world’s supply of rare earth element oxides, the final product in the processing phase. However, operations for Lynas and the others are still limited to Australia, Malaysia, and the United States. 

Shifting the reliance of rare earths away from China in the coming decades is a strategic necessity not just for the United States, but for its allies as well. Ensuring a foundation for technological research and development along with supplying them on an international scale requires a stable supply of raw materials. Sponsoring companies, such as Lynas Rare Earths Ltd, to enhance their mining and processing capabilities is likely to increase relative output but not in orders of magnitude. Thus expanding their reach to untapped mineral markets is necessary; however, it requires the diplomatic support of a government. 

Helping build foreign mining markets in areas rich with rare earth metals is a promising route for those wanting to secure their domestic supply chains of rare earth oxides. In Afghanistan, a trillion dollars worth of untapped rare earth mineral reserves is their ticket to Saudi-level wealth. In conjunction with the Chinese government, Kabul has begun to mine their large copper deposits—a win-win for the expansion of Chinese influence. 

Considering China’s grip on the market of rare earths and the unstable footing that economic cooperation between the two countries currently stands on, distancing supply chains away from China is vital to America’s national security interests. However, if there is money being spent on arms, there should be time spent on deterrence. 

Deterring a New Threat

China’s modernized military brings fears of Tawainese isolation and presents an immediate security threat to the South China Sea. The current strategy of cutting China’s access to the Pacific through the first island chains—which include the Ryukyu Islands, Taiwan, and the Philippine archipelago—has fundamental flaws since the credibility of Taiwan’s deterrence strategy is contingent on U.S. military commitment to the island which has not been clearly established. If China breaks through the first island chain by taking Taiwan, responsibility will lie in the hands of the U.S. which has spawned a desire for increased weapons procurement to respond to potential hostilities. 

China’s modernized military equipment, such as the DF-21 and DF-26 missile systems—otherwise known as the carrier-killers—have ranges stretching through the Sea of Japan and the East and South China Sea, which many fear would turn the area between the first island chain and China into a meat-grinder if U.S. forces wished to break through. On top of that, U.S. military commitment towards Taiwan has historically been ambiguous and the anticipation of a lackluster U.S. response is yet another incentive for China to break the weakest link in the chain. 

Such anxieties could be alleviated if the U.S. had a quick reaction force in the waters of the first island chain, serving as a tripwire to dissuade China. A previous U.S. army base located in the Subic Bay, Philippines would have been perfectly situated for the current tensions near Taiwan but was decommissioned in 1991. Stationing a small tripwire force of destroyers would pressure China to recognize that conflict in Taiwan would instantly escalate to a larger confrontation. Importantly, the deployment of such a force should be limited to just stationing and not a militarization of the base since Chinese threats would likely ensue. 

The strategic framework in Washington consisting of necessitated weapons research and development to combat security concerns in the Western Pacific should be secondary to a cautious and precise policy of deterrence by cost imposition due to the ever-looming threat of nuclear retaliation. A small detachment would not only further deter an attempted Chinese assault on Taiwan, but it would also enable U.S. commitment towards Taiwan to remain ambiguous and prevent armageddon.

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By Ryan Saffarian

Ryan Saffarian is a junior at UCLA currently pursuing a B.A. in Political Science with a concentration in International Relations. He is a Staff Writer at the Journal on World Affairs UCLA.

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